Traditionally, legal aid commissions, community legal centres and indigenous family violence and legal services have been the legal service of last resort for Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. However, increasingly agencies like ours are having to stare down growing demand for our services as Australia’s working poor seek accessible legal services.
Across Australia between 2014 and 2015, CLCs turned away more than 150,000 people because community legal centre funding was unable to meet the need. And it is not just CLC clients that are feeling the pinch. With pressure on legal aid commissions to apply ever more stringent eligibility criteria, even more people are being turned away. Earlier this month the President of the Law Council of Australia, Stuart Clark, noted that due to funding cuts only 8% of Australians qualified for Legal Aid under the current means test.
The poverty line, once the benchmark for disadvantage, no longer applies. Many living below the poverty line are now unlikely to qualify for legal aid. ‘We’re not just talking about people like ice dealers,’ said Stuart Clark. ‘[It] may be a woman with two or three children whose marriage has sadly broken down and is now facing the prospect of trying to reach a financial settlement with her former husband in circumstances where she’s forced to go to court without a lawyer.’
According to the council at least 45,000 people have been ‘forced to represent themselves in court since 2009 because the [legal aid] service was in crisis mode.’
In 2015, the government’s own economic policy think tank, the Productivity Commission, pointed out that accessible legal services are chronically underfunded. But the Commission’s report seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The Commission recommended a Federal injection of $200 million per year to enable all these services to meet the immediate need. Of this amount, the share for community legal centres would be just $61.6 million each year.
Yet despite the Commission’s recommendation, the current Federal government’s 2016 Budget not only retained more than $34 million in planned cuts to the sector but flagged additional cuts of $100 million over the next four years.
Most community legal centres are federally funded via the National Partnership Agreement (NPA) on Legal Assistance Services, which covers all legal assistance services. Community legal centres receive approximately 11% of this allocation. According to the 2015 Budget, CLCs annual funding nationally will fall from $42.2 million in 2016–17 to just $30.1 million from July 2017 – a cut of around 30%.
The Federal Government has allocated some additional money for free legal assistance to people experiencing family violence. In early May the Federal Attorney-General announced that $10 million dollars a year over three years would be diverted from the broader family violence Budget allocation and would be shared among legal assistance services. As the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres pointed out ‘that’s manifestly inadequate when community legal centres alone are facing more than $34 million in cuts left in the Budget, amid a total shortfall of $100 million over four years.’
ARC Justice EO, Peter Noble, pointed out in the Bendigo Advertiser on 5 May that the funding cuts would mean ‘significant cuts to frontline services.’
‘For the federal government not only to have ignored what the Productivity Commission has said in injecting further funds, but to seem to be proceeding with the threat to cuts funds from 1 July 2017 is really horrendous.’
We are one of Victoria’s most exposed Community Legal Centres. Funding cuts will likely mean the loss of a lawyer who predominantly works in the areas of family law and family violence. The Victorian Government recently announced $300,000 funding over two years for Goulburn Valley CLC. This will enable us to develop a health-justice partnership with Rumbalara Aboriginal Corporation. But while this announcement was welcomed, it doesn’t let the Federal government off the funding hook.
As the cuts bite, our sector will increasingly turn away some of our society’s most vulnerable members. The Federation of Community Legal Centres nominates women seeking family violence intervention orders, ‘people needing help with family law, people whose jobs are at risk from workplace mistreatment and discrimination, and people facing debt, consumer issues, unfair fines, eviction and homelessness.’
So how does funding for legal services rate as an election issue? A recent poll conducted by the Law Council of Australia found that eight out of 10 Australians supported funding for free legal help for those most in need. We know what the Coalition has planned for Community Legal Centres, but how do the other major parties stack up?
The ALP has announced additional funding of $42.9 million over three years as an initial investment, related to family violence work. They also promise amendments to the NPA, including removal of the restriction on law reform and policy advocacy work. Further, the ALP is committed to reconsidering the Productivity Commission report, including the need to urgently invest further funding broadly into the legal assistance sector and CLCs. Local federal member Lisa Chesters visited our office on 17 June and committed to a funding increase for our service of $450,000 over the next three years if the ALP is elected to government.
The Greens Access to Justice Policy promises to reverse the Coalition’s funding cuts and to fully fund the Productivity Commission’s recommendations. That is, additional Federal funding of:
- $92m for Community Legal Centres
- $290.04m for Legal Aid Commissions
- $183.09m for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services
- $144.36m for Family Violence Prevention Legal Services
- $6.99m for legal service peak bodies.
If you are on social media, you can find more on this issue via #FundEqualJustice.